D. Christian Harrison argues that mandatory reporting laws should expect to pastoral figures.

Aug 10, 2022
D. Christian Harrison

D. Christian Harrison, "We can—must!—do better.," By Common Consent, August 10, 2022

By Common Consent
D. Christian Harrison
Internet Public

While this post is certainly inspired by a recent—and explosive—AP news article and Salt Lake’s entirely predictable and altogether tepid response, it isn’t (strictly speaking) about the scandal. I don’t know enough about the particulars of the serious and credible allegations against the Church to really weigh in… But I’m a careful observer of the human condition and an active member of several policy making circles, so I hope you’ll indulge me in a little bit of sideline commentary.

The rage over the allegations is still white-hot, and who can blame folks? We’re talking about children, here, our most vulnerable—and literally the “least of these”, “our little ones”. But at some point, we’ll need to step back a little to collect our thoughts, if we’re ever to actually effect change. Burning stuff down is cathartic—and can actually be useful—but longterm success requires cooler heads and reasoned arguments.

It’s only in the rarest of circumstances that evil is naked and unadulterated. In our fallen world, most evil is actually found in the cracks between what we should be doing and what we actually accomplish… It’s not the incendiary evil of dictators and movie villains—but the dry, scratchy evil of a whole bunch of people doing less than their best. It’s the wages of mediocrity. It’s banale. It can even be boring… And it’s often (though not always) the direct (but largely unintended) consequences of bad systems.

Lay of the Land

When I step back from the headlines, these are the various systems I see at play (in no particular order):

Sexual impropriety/misconduct/violence is pervasive in our society—from creepy to violent. The chance that there is sexual impropriety/misconduct/violence in any/all our congregations is extremely high.

Churches and other religious bodies concern themselves with what the good life and the contours of moral behavior look like. The Church is not an outlier, here.

Churches and other religious bodies believe (correctly, I’d submit) that how we treat each other—socially and sexually—is at the core of these two questions. Again, the Church is not an outlier here.

The Church does not, however, have a well-formed socio-sexual moral framework; it’s mostly just listicles (3 things not to do with your penis, 7 things not to do with your vagina). This makes talking about social and sexual morality difficult… But, more importantly, it makes it ineffectual (see 1, 2, 3, 4, 5).

Bishops (and their equivalents)—again, correctly, I’d submit—engage in varying degrees of pastoral/counseling work with their flocks.

Bishops, however, are—by design! this is something missionaries often tout as a sign of a true-and-living church—not trained in any meaningful way in pastoral/counseling work.

Congregants (and bishops) have been trained to see bishops as unencumbered conduits for God’s wisdom—better than professionals, because they can get answers straight from the source. (Never mind that this isn’t how inspiration works—we’re to train up our minds and then use the Spirit to help us ask the best questions and then to discern the best answers—and what is professional training, but a rigorous approach to “studying it out in [our] minds”?)

Bishop–congregant communications are popularly believed to be private—even though they are not. Bishops often and with the blessing of Salt Lake share the details of our most private moments with their counselors, with auxiliary leaders, with the stake president, and if you attend a Church school or are employed by the Church, with faceless (soulless) bureaucrats, there.

Because of this (incorrect) belief, many expect bishop–congregant communications to be treated by others—especially policy-makers—like they treat the priest-penitent communications of other churches and how they treat attorney–client and/or doctor–patient communications.

It’s widely believed—and with good reason—that these privileged communications are an important part of encouraging proper behavior from folks who might otherwise not seek the sort of help they need.

Around the world, though, governments have begun to carve out exceptions to these sorts of privileged communications, designating certain people as “mandatory reporters”—requiring them to report things like sexual violence to the authorities. The list of who qualifies as a mandatory reporter, what qualifies as a triggering event, and who qualifies as an authority all vary widely—and lay people (most of us, frankly) would be hard-pressed to accurately describe the mandatory reporting landscape for where we live (let alone the next jurisdiction over).

The Church is heavily/surprisingly/uncomfortably reliant upon/deferential to the legal advice they seek from their retained attorneys*—and news headlines of the last half-century are littered with truly cringeworthy fallout from that codependency.

Returning to the subject of sexual impropriety/misconduct/violence… It’s an incredibly broad spectrum of behavior, but we’ve yet to develop anything but the crudest and bluntest of responses to it. Our laws, our penal system, our therapeutic system, our intervention systems, and our culture all lack the nuance one would expect in response to such a complex problem.

To add insult to injury, LDS language around the whole issue of sex is toxic. We identify consensual pre-marital sex as the “sin next to murder”. What this means is that, not only do we not distinguish between consensual sex and child molestation… We have constructed a vocabulary that is incapable of making that distinction.

Worse, our response paradigm favors punishment over treatment—but such punishment is doled out in a frighteningly arbitrary fashion—with unhealthy doses of get-out-of-jail-free cards for wealthy, white males (or their progeny).

So what do we want?

If we’re clamoring for change… What sort of change do we want?

I know what I want. Perhaps you might disagree… Though I suspect we won’t disagree too much.

I want fewer acts of sexual impropriety/misconduct/violence to occur, and for what acts which do occur to be less grievous in nature.

I want intervention to be more pervasive, earlier, more granular, less institutional/authoritarian, more therapeutic, more restorative, and less punitive.

And I want all of our efforts to undergird a wholesale shift in our culture. We simply cannot build a regulatory framework robust enough to achieve our goals in the face of cultural intransigence, indifference, or (worse) animosity.

And how do we get there?

My response could literally be a book (or two)… So I’ll limit myself to my top-ten top-eleven suggestions—all of which assume that the Church doesn’t merely “allow” these changes to occur, but uses its not inconsiderable resources to champion.

It all starts with a robust, age-appropriate, uncensored universal K-16 sex education that centers consent and bodily autonomy in the curriculum.

We need to standardize mandatory reporting across jurisdictions and expand it to include bishops (and other pastoral counselors).

We need to expand and improve training in identifying victims and perpetrators of sexual impropriety/misconduct/violence—not only for mandatory reporters but for students of human development and associated fields—and in best practices around common scenarios where sexual impropriety/misconduct/violence occurs.

We, as a church, need to develop a robust, sex-positive, and affirming socio-sexual moral framework that is fully ingrained in our pastoral, devotional, doctrinal, and administrative spheres.

We, as a society, need to better define the contours of what constitutes impropriety, misconduct, and violence. We’ve come a long way in recent decades—mostly, it would seem, due to the efforts of so many brave souls to center the topics of consent and bodily autonomy in our national dialogue.

We, as a society, need to shift from a punitive framework to a therapeutic and restorative framework. Institutional responses to allegations need to be swift, universal, data-informed, and non-destructive.

We need to greatly expand and support foster care, grand family, and Court Appointed Special Advocate® (CASA) / guardian ad litem (GAL) programs—including deeper supports for front-line social workers.

We, as a Church need to fund centers at colleges and universities with established writing programs across the nation tasked with developing healthier tropes and ways of engaging unhealthy tropes in our mass media. Modeling healthy behavior in our mass media—and identifying and calling out damaging behavioral tropes will be key to shifting entrenched and toxic narratives.

Our nation needs universal healthcare—including mental health; we need universal basic income; and we need universal paid family leave. Getting help for ourselves or our loved ones shouldn’t bankrupt us… Many forms of sexual misconduct and violence happen at the workplace and we need to put more tools in the hands of families to make smart decisions based on what matters most and not strictly on what pays the bills… And we need the scheduling flexibility to do all of it while keeping those jobs.

The Church needs to Roll out a help line that prioritizes the wellbeing of the victim(s), getting help for the perp, AND indemnifying our lay clergy—and when any conflict with the first, we prioritize the first. It can be done.

Edit: I can’t believe I left this one off! The Church needs to commit fully to bishops referring congregants to professionals, as appropriate—and by fully, I mean committing to funding such care as necessary, and in parts of the world where such services are unavailable or under available, committing to calling locals to attend schools and become the professionals our people need and deserve. Imagine an army of Saints—well trained and properly outfitted—blessing their communities with better medical care, better therapy, and abundant social work. We’d move mountains!

Them’s my ten eleven.

There’s a lot more. But this would be an amazing start.

While we’re waiting, let’s get the perps in front of mandatory reporters: “Ted, I’m so glad you came to me. I want the very best for you and for these people you’ve harmed. Let’s get you and your family into counseling. This is non-negotiable. We’re going to use all the tools that God has given us—including professional helps.”

We can be a light on a hill, we can be the force for social change that the Lord expects us to be, we can be doers of the word and not hearers only.

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